Street Art in Documentary Film

Last night, I watched RASHa documentary about the street art and graffiti culture in Melbourne. The documentary was released as Melbourne prepared to host the 2006 Commonwealth Games, when the topic of street art became a heated debate. As a result, it focused on the cultural value of illegal public art and how it contributes to a larger dialogue.


Here are some of the interesting things I learned from the documentary, which answered a lot of my questions.

Do street artists bring anything with them on the streets?

Many street artists don’t go into the streets alone. They like to bring friends as lookouts, in case any authorities come. Sometimes, artists such as James Dodd, even take entire vans full of supplies such as glues and posters.

What motivates street artists?

Sixten, a swedish stencil artist who bases his art on extreme feelings of “passion, angst, euphoria, and rage,” explained that he just wanted to make things beautiful. He says, “destruction is also a beautiful thing.” He also likes doing street art because the risk of getting caught makes him feel young again.

Ha-Ha, a stencil artist, explained that his initial goal in his art was simply to use 2 tons of paint per night until he got really good at his craft. Now, he uses his art to expore the power of mass media within Australian popular culture

Miles Allison, a local artist and writer from Melbourne, says his art embraces the idea of displacing and replacing. He likes to rupture the city environment so that something unusual, startling, or poetic might come through. He describes art as “individuals making an intervention into the prescribed way of being in the city.” To him, art is about creating a dialogue with your surrounding environment, and creating a “kind of poetic subversion like a conversation held beneath the surface, where something wonderful is continuously being decided.”

Dominic Allen, Australian street artist and director, never signs his art with his real name, because it’s not about personal notoriety or fame. Instead, he wants fame for his street name, because he wants to use the art associated with it to make a comment that affects a lot of people. Allen makes a controversial statement about the connection between street art and advertising. He believes that if 7/11 can pay money for a sign that lights up at night, then an artist can go up with a marker and put his own name on there, so that the artist gets the same amount of coverage to let the same amount of people to make them aware of their logo or brand. FLIQ, an artist from BurnCrew, also agrees that street art is about having your name in as many places as possible. 

Tai Snaith, a female artist and curator who often receives grants from the City of Melbourne for her projects, makes art because “it’s a free political climate” and she wants to take advantage of her freedom. Her art is a political act because she makes work outside of normal and not prescribed. She believes good art is a social need, because ideas need to be expressed. Since Melbourne is developing at a rapid rate, she wants to “claim it while we can.” Snaith also believes street art documents a group of people that lived in the town beyond just the rich business people or media owners.

Civil, a political street artist, makes art because there is a lack of community-based public art on streets and he wants to put alternative ideas out there for people to think about and discuss. He thinks the cultural value of street art is blatantly obvious, because people are now coming to Melbourne just to check out the graffiti, and it’s such a vital tool for discussion.

Where do street artists draw inspiration?

Vexta says she is often inspired by blank walls and dark alleyways. She wants to make art with strong messages that make people feel something. She is also inspired by layers of stencils, because they indicate a whole bunch of people making announcements (significant or insignificant) who are willing to tamper with and engage with the public space we all share.

FERS shares that once he gets inspired, immediacy of process is important. Once he has an idea, thought, or emotion, he believes the best thing he can do is to get it out right away before he loses the impetus or motivation to go out and put it out there.

Are there any themes and hidden meanings in artists’ work?

Haha always tries to relate his work to Australian popular culture in the street. He often draws Ned Kelly or robots.

James Dodd thinks about “occupied territory” in urban space in his works. He considers media images as public property, such as the way people and the media “own” Princess Diana. As a result, he wanted to create art work based off the idea that she was stolen from the world, but still kept that essence of youth and exuberance throughout her life.

Psalm focuses on the politics in graffiti. He once did a street art piece of a plate as a statement about how war gobbles up everything indiscriminately.

How did street artists get into the scene?

Civil didn’t come from an artistic background — he studied science in university, and didn’t even do art until his twenties when he realized it was something he could do. He believes anyone can get into the scene, especially through self-publishing. He used to make cheap copies of magazines with his political art and gave it to his friends.

What is the interaction between street art and politics? 

Politics are a crucial part of the street art scene. People put out messages about what they think about world events or leaders. Graffiti understands how to get a message out there to lots of people and how to present an alternative world within the community living next to you. There is a lot of anti-war graffiti that is quite intelligent and sophisticated. Since artists can’t talk to the politicians, street art is their other form of communication. They write things on the walls such as “bomb walls not people” or “make stencils not war.”

Civil believes the images of street art themselves aren’t often confronting, but it is their location that is confronting to people. He enjoys the idea of doing non-confronting images in weird places to make more public art for everyone.

How do they choose their locations and timing?

Tai Snaith, an Australian female artist, explained that she loves to just casually draw when walking home.

Civil, an artist who draws politically-charged stick figures, simply says he does it whenever he feels like the time is right.

Ha-Ha says his choice is usually sppntaneous, like “Hey, let’s go out!”

Psalm says he never has a predetermined location. He just takes his stencils or paste-ups and puts them up whenever he finds a spot.

Sixten likes doing spots that are hard to reach and where it’s easy to get caught, because he likes the adrenaline rush.

Vexta likes painting on billboards, because her art can enrich a huge audience through wide exposure. She believes it’s a way to reclaim a space that isn’t used much anymore, and to make an interaction that everyone can see.

Dominic Allen also appreciates billboards because they bring lots of traffic. He compares art to advertising — people are forced to look a message in a public space. Allen wants to provide an alternative message to consumerism by using the same language and space and thought as advertisers do. When he makes art on billboards, he tries to make it quick and snappy, because people are often driving past quickly and don’t dwell on what they see for very long.

FERS has an interesting perspective on this. He says, “Just because you paid money for property doesn’t mean it’s strictly yours. It’s part of a larger society. You built your ugly building and ugly billboards. I find offense to it. I don’t want to see your images of people and transparent bullshit propaganda on the walls. But if I put something on there that doesn’t fit your aesthetic, all of a sudden it’s insulting. Where’s the balance there?” FERS is all about putting conflicting opinions out there.

Why do artists use street names/tags and what do they mean?  

Street artists usually have one-word names to represent them. It becomes their symbol, but it also protects them.

FERS derived his name from the word curse. He initially spelled it “KERS,” and then changed the K to an F and liked the way it looked. He also liked that FERs referenced firs, which are tough trees.

Prism got his name from high school, because he was always interested in chemistry and scientific stuff like prisms and chemicals. It just became stuck in his head until he realized it was the obvious choice.

Ha-Ha got his name from Nelson from The Simpsons, who would always point and laugh at people “Ha, ha.”

Vexta got her name from an amalgamation of nicknames. She also liked the active feeling of “being vexed.” Civil chose his name because he makes art for all civilians, civil art, “art for the people.”

Meek chose his name because he prefers to be a ghost within society. This shows in his street art, as he likes to stencil the words “This wall has been intentionally left blank.”

Tower chose his name because he’s very tall and can reach hard-to-access places.

Kab 101 says that he loves street names because he likes to make them beautiful pieces of lettering in a space where people least expect it, such as in an alleyway or down a tunnel or freight. He likes to have his art somewhere not easily accessible to society because he likes giving people the feeling of finding art that others left behind. He calls his tags “logos” because they’re like startup signatures, advertising, or a secretive art movement that exists without the public knowing too much. He calls it “encryption in letters” because his tagging looks beyond the standard font.

What is “bombing”? 

Bombing is a word used by street artists to indicate painting many surfaces in an area. Oftentimes, bombers paint throw-ups or tags so they can get the job done more quickly. You can learn more street art lingo in this Glossary of Graffiti wikipedia page.

How do artists feel about cops or damaging property?

Ha-ha said he’s never been chased by security or cops, but has a feeling that one day it may happen. He joked that he’s “gonna have to start exercising.”

James Dodd believes that street art can be damaging property, but he also believes that’s part of the culture of expression.

Vexta says she’s happy to be a vandal. She doesn’t ever vandalize churches or shop fronts, but otherwise she paint where she wants. She says people protest against street art because it’s intrusive — they’re used to walking pats a place and having it a certain way, and don’t like it being changed drastically. However, she believes vandalism highlights issues and it’s empowering to express yourself.

GMO on the island believes that street art isn’t just an ugly mark on the city. Instead, it’s a cultural layer on top of what’s already there. Street artists are people who want to do big things creatively all over the place.

Why is Melbourne a great place for street art?

Lister says that Melbourne is a “mecca for street art” because artists have reasons outside of fame and pretension. According to him, they’re not chasing anything besides “just being able to paint” and focus on “making it about the art.”

Vexta says Melbourne has a “rocking street art scene” because it has so many proactive artists to help inspire and support and grow others in the community. Also, she says the Melbourne council is pretty relaxed and doesn’t buff walls.

Tai Snaith says there are more people who like street art than hate it, and since there is more appreciation, the council is letting it be for a while.

A member of the city council, David Wilson, said that the zero tolerance policy (“see it, clean it”) toward illegal graffiti is quite expensive, since people have to spend money and time removing it.

Dest said that the City of Melbourne even worked to preserve certain pieces of graffiti. The city bubble once bubble-wrapped a wall featuring one artist’s piece and then removed it to preserve it.

Chali 2na says Australia has a lot more freedom than America in terms of public art expression.


How is the street art scene developing? 

According to Tai Snaith, there are many alternate forms of street art that branch out of aerosol-based pieces. People are using stickers, paste-ups, chalk, and even crayons, to maek the art more accessible to people who might cringe at spray paint. There’s also an emerging scenes of people collecting and swapping stickers.

How do female street artists feel about working in a male-dominated scene?

 Vexta, a female street artist, got into street art not because she wanted to make a point about gender, but because she simply loves it. However, she believes that if her art empowers women to stand up and do something they are passionate about that they aren’t entirely confident in, then she will feel accomplished.

How do artists interact with each other and their artwork? 

There’s an unspoken policy that artists don’t tag on other peoples’ pieces as a sign of respect.

Psalm says it’s not nice to go over other people’s stuff, because he knows then they will go over his stuff.

Prism started Stencil Revolution to help other aspiring artists learn about the best types of paints to use and for them to post their artwork on the Internet for others to critique and comment on. There is also a sticker-trading community, where artists exchange their artwork.

How do other people react to street art? 

White trucks are often a great whiteboard for street artists to work on.

Kosta Kostoski, a local truck driver, said that he enjoys the art painted on his truck. He makes the distinction that art isn’t defacement, but tagging is. Otherwise, art is “fantastic,” an he appreciates that people put time and energy into their work.

colorful truck

Max Vella, another local interviewed in the film, believes that there’s a difference between good and bad graffiti, and that people should “clear off the shitty stuff for better stuff.”


Street Art and Academia

Today, I had the pleasure of meeting Lachlan MacDowall, a professor at the University of Melbourne who researches the history and aesthetics of graffiti in a field called Graffiti Studies. He has written many interesting papers about how street art intersects with topics such as public space, security and surveillance, technology and digital culture, and aesthetics and commodification. He also compiled a list of the most interesting scholarship on graffiti, called The Graffiti Reader, which is a very helpful resource.

I spent some time reading his research, and many of his points jumped out to me. First, he writes that graffiti holds aesthetic value “as objects of heritage protection, models for information exchange on the Internet, stylistic devices for advertising and the stimulus for urban design and architectural projects.” I definitely see the idea of heritage protection play out in street art, especially in works that portray the Aboriginals of Australia, such as in Adnate‘s work.


Lachlan told me that graffiti holds significant social purposes, especially for tourism and urban regeneration. For example, it has definitely added to Melbourne’s image of an artistic and creative city. A beautiful phrase he used is that graffiti “punctures the skin of the city.”

Street art has also definitely been used for advertising (and sometimes replaces advertisements), which I’ll post more examples of soon! Lachlan also made me interested in how the Internet immortalizes graffiti and gives it second life. Many artists now turn to Instagram or Facebook to ensure that their art circulates and lasts in the public eye, even when it is physically defaced on the wall, which answers my question about street art layers.

I met Lachlan in Caledonian Lane, right next to the new Topshop that opened in Melbourne. Apparently, the store owners agreed to preserve the lane and make it more accessible to people. MacDowall pointed out an interesting paste-up there that now serves as a piece of Melbourne’s history. In 2007, Melbourne tried to ban the usage of aerosol cans without documented information in order to catch graffiti writer, but there was a strong coalition against the law. One of the protests was called the Don’t Ban The Can movement. I’m actually not sure how it turned out, because it seemed it a bit vague. Street art is still illegal in most areas, yet the laws aren’t really enforced because Melbourne recognizes that it’s part of their city branding and tourism. In fact, they even feature their graffitied lanes in their city brochures and provide grants for street art walls. The relationship is pretty complicated, but I think the laws are there for theory and not for practice.

 dont ban the can

Interestingly, Lachlan told me he was commissioned by the City Council to create an archive of the 100 most valuable pieces of street art in order to prevent famous pieces from being destroyed (in 2003, a Banksy piece had been painted over by accident and people were devastated). Lachlan was asked to rank the art in terms of historic, political, and aesthetic value. Lachlan didn’t like the implications of the idea, because he didn’t think you could just rank the top 100 pieces of art by value. In his words, “It’s street art, not dance music on Billboard charts.”

After wandering around some street art lanes, Lachlan brought me to No Vacancy Gallery, where street artists had their work featured. It was interesting to see how they reacted to their work being displayed in a private space. MacDowall pointed out that many artists made references to the urban setting even when their work was displayed in a gallery, as they would with street art. For example, this piece was painted on a door (as evidenced by the hinges), just like it would have been displayed on the street.

 interrobang - door hinges

And this piece even replicates the texture of an outdoors wall.

interrobang - WALL TEXTURE

Lachlan also told me that while some artists are able to circumvent their way into the gallery system through street art, some are simply critical of galleries, and hold a very negative reaction toward them.

Toward the end of our visit, Lachlan showed me Villain, a graffiti art store located in the Queen Victoria Shopping Centre. I spoke to the storeowner, who said that she’s come across all sorts of street artists, but that her owner doesn’t like being directly affiliated with the walls. She allowed me to take some photographs of the store.

Here’s the cabinet of spray cans.

villain spray cans 2

Interestingly, they also had a “practice” canvas for street artists. Street art on trains is huge in Melbourne, and I guess this is perfect practice for beginners.

villain practice

After visiting Villain, I took a walking tour around the city with I’m Free Tours, and the tour guide showed us these stencils of  Ned Kelly in Chinatown. She explained that Ned Kelly is a famous Australian outlaw who is basically like the Robin Hood of Australia, and has become a figure that people in Melbourne are still fond of today.

I later learned that these stencils were created by a famous artist, Ha-HaI researched about his background and learned that he never went to art school —yet his works have been collected by the National Gallery of Australia, which is a huge accomplishment.

I reached out to him on Facebook through a personal connection, but he said he was in Brisbane and couldn’t meet up. Instead, he gave me links to some of his websites, where he talks about how his art “explores the power of mass media within Australian popular culture.” I was also impressed that some of his stencils take up to 40 layers, which is how he achieves such a photo realist effect. He usually gets his images from a newspaper or photograph, and then cuts stencils that look lifelike, as you can see below.

ned kelly

Lachlan said the Ned Kelly stencils connect street art to outlaw tradition, which is quite clever. He also joked that these stencils inspired the “hipster” 19th-century beards that guys in Melbourne sport these days.

Hosier Lane

After my morning in Fitzroy and Collingwood, I had the pleasure of walking around the city with the founder of Melbourne Street Art 86. For this project, he spent three months documenting the street art scene on Melbourne’s 86 tram route as a service to the community and visitors, and therefore had a lot to share with me.

We went to Hosier Lane, where I learned about the high turnover of art. Every few weeks, you can come back and notice the walls have new artwork on them. As a result, many artists like to put their works higher up on a wall, so they can be preserved longer. Some artists climb up street lamps or poles to get access to hard-to-reach areas, while others who are commissioned can even bring in scissor lifts.

Unfortunately, if the location is highly accessible, even the best pieces of artwork can be defaced. I learned about throw-ups, which are essentially quick outlines filled in with aerosol paint. These are done with people who tend to hate commissioned art pieces and want to deface them quickly and efficiently. Here’s an example of a piece on Little Bourke Street in Chinatown where the bottom became littered with throw-ups.


The sad thing is that this piece was done by DMV Crew (Da Mental Vaporz), who reunited from all the way around the world to create this piece. Each of them painted their own section, so they could create a collage of all their different styles.

In common opinion, successful street artists are ones who tend to get commissioned to paint on legal walls and also have their works displayed in shows. Some people believe that artists use street art to circumvent the normal channel for galleries. They can “leapfrog” their way into the public’s attention by catching their eye on the street.

According to locals, Melbourne street art is new age, hallucinogenic, and dreamlike. Yet recently it has become more political, ever since the change in government. Artists also use their art to deliver fun messages, such as this one, which references Andy Warhol’s art.

photo (6)

This one also serves as social commentary against capitalism.

photo (5)

I found that the best street art can be lurking in the most unexpected areas. This beautiful piece was found in a mostly empty alleyway, at the bottom of a brick wall.

photo (2)

Discovering New Neighborhoods

This morning, I went to meet a friend at Friends of The Earth Co-Op. To get there, I ended up walking through the Fitzroy and Collingwood neighborhoods, which are absolutely ideal locations for finding street art. I want to share some of the pieces I discovered, starting with this one by Everfresh Studios. These artists use art to express pride for their neighborhood and add character to their surroundings.

31 neighborhood mark - everfresh

Here’s a piece by Adnate. He’s a Melbourne-based artist who does a lot of work featuring indigenous Aboriginal Australians, which is great for preserving Melbourne’s cultural heritage. His work has caught the attention of many, and he was even invited to do a $20,000 commissioned piece in Hosier Lane by people in the community.

1 adnade aboriginal

Street art is frequently used as a form of protest or activism, mostly about political figures or movements. It’s a great way to get the message out there to a wide audience. For example, here’s a paste-up against eating animals.

11 vegetarian

I also found this piece by Deb, a prominent female street artist within the male-dominated culture. Her works all convey a strong sense of femininity, and most of the women she features are quite exotic or ethnic looking.

3 deb - femal artist

I read one of her interviews in Invurt, where she says she spends half her time preparing art for galleries and half with street art. While she tries to keep both forms of art separate, she admits that she spray paints in a style that resembles her illustrations. She’s also highly influenced by pin-up, vintage, retro, and burlesque style.  A really cool thing about her is that she writes short stories before she starts painting, so her characters and style are really unique.

I also saw this beautiful mural on Young Street. I first saw images of it from RMIT professor Maggie McCormick, so when I meet with her, I’ll ask more about it.

4 something poltical young street

I found this piece outside of Juddy Rollers Cafe. I love how there are so many different forms of street art, and how this literally pops out of the wall. I think it must have been made out of cardboard in a studio and then pasted on.

18 cardboard

I also like how much street art plays with dimension and surface. I love how the zebras move seamlessly from the garage to the brick wall. That’s one of the coolest things about street art — how it interacts with its surroundings and how the artist makes decisions based on the canvas.

27 play with dimension

Another animal piece that I liked was by MakatronHe describes his work as a visual riot about the “interface between man, beast and machine.” I love seeing his animals around the streets. Apparently, he travels a lot, so I’m excited to see his work around the work! Since I follow him on social media, I’ve currently been seeing updates on his work in New York.32 amazing makatron turtle

Street art can also be used to memorialize people. Here’s a piece dedicated to Adriano, who is probably a friend of the artists who passed away.

29 dedicated to dead friendFinally, I love seeing pieces from artists from all the way across the world. I believe this one is by an artist called Kaffeine. 19 found in ncyThe cool thing is that I’ve seen his work in New York City, too! Here’s another piece of his that I found in Brooklyn.


New Viewpoints on Street Art

While exploring Centre Lane, I found two interesting perspectives on art that I want to explore further. 31 not photo opHere’s a sign that said “This is not a photo opportunity.”  I saw it right as tourists below were taking photographs of themselves against the art. It seems like most people come to Hosier Lane just to take fun pictures with colorful backgrounds, instead of really looking at the art. Interestingly, someone crossed out the words to write “This is not art.” A lot of people don’t consider street art as an art form, because it’s so underground and oftentimes illegal. Personally, for me, I find it to be one of the purest art forms, since most of it is meant to either publicly express opinions or enhance their surroundings without a financial incentive. 


Another interesting point came when I saw this iconic symbol. It’s a picture of Duchamp’s urinal, which is a 1917 art piece of a porcelain urinal signed “R. Mutt” and named Fountain. It was the only piece of work rejected by the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, even though the rules stated all works would be featured. It stirred a large controversy, because people began to wonder what is or isn’t art. Perhaps the urinal is a response to the sign above.

Women in Street Art

While there are some women artists in street art, the scene is still dominated by men. As a result, I became interested in how different genders are portrayed in art. For example, the women are either highly sexualized, or simply featured for their beauty. The men in street art tend to be political figures that people are protesting against.

Here are some examples of the sexualized bodies I noticed. I found these pieces in Union Lane near Bourke Street Mall. 1 femaleThe pictures are dark because I took them at night, but it’s clear how exaggerated the women’s bodies are.

2 female

When the women featured in street art aren’t sexualized for their bodies, then their faces tend to be the only part of them featured.They also all tend to look like models.

29 beautiful women

Street Art Layers

I’m really fascinated by the idea of street art being ephemeral and impermanent. Since there are so many artists who paint there, the turnover rate for art at Hosier Lane is really high— some locals say that the art can be completely different within weeks. As a result, a lot of artists who want their art to be preserved will paint it higher up in hard-to-reach locations, so it can’t easily be painted over. Other times, art is removed by local business owners who report it to the council and obtain permission to wash it off. 

Most artists deal with the short life of their art by taking photographs or relying on others to immortalize it online. The Internet gives street art a second life, which is quite cool. Other artists keep books or old stencils of their art as ways of preserving it, but most of them are okay with the temporary nature.

I’m also really interested in the art that lasts, but that ends up growing layers over it. Here’s an example, where the Bart Simpson mural started off clean, but soon got covered with tags.

30 deface wall intreacting

It’s interesting to observe how the different layers and styles interact with each other. I’ll write more about this in future posts!